The Jane Austen Book Club Review

Bernadette (Kathy Baker) has been married and divorced six times. Her friend Jocelyn (Maria Bello) is grieving for her beloved dog. To take Jocelyn’s mind off it, Bernadette suggests the idea of a book club devoted to Jane Austen, a novel a month for six months. Also recruited are Prudie (Emily Blunt), a high-school French teacher who feels a fraud in that she’s never been to France – and her holiday there has just been cancelled by her husband (Marc Blucas) for “business reasons”. Sylvia (Amy Brenneman), supposedly happily married, has just been told by her husband (Jimmy Smits) that he is leaving her. Sylvia’s lesbian daughter Allegra (Maggie Grace) has difficulties of her own: her writer lover. A sixth female member proves difficult to find, but then Jocelyn finds Grigg (Hugh Dancy), who hasn’t read Austen at all before and is more into science fiction.

The film is based on Karen Joy Fowler’s bestselling novel. Fowler is a novelist, poet and short-story writer mainly associated with the SF and fantasy genres. The Jane Austen Book Club, her fourth novel, is neither, but it’s clearly related as a novel about the consolations, challenges and rewards of reading fiction. It’s also well-informed about the genre, as Hugh’s references to written SF are accurate: he tries to convert Jocelyn to the works of Ursula Le Guin, for example. (One false note: to fans of the written genre, the abbreviation is “SF”, never “sci-fi”.) Also, Fowler’s novel is a piece of writing as well as a story. Robin Swicord’s film can’t quite capture the sharp, witty but non-sentimental tone of its source novel, let alone those of the great writer that Fowler’s novel pays tribute to, but it’s a good attempt all the same.

At each book club meeting, one of the six leads the discussion of the one of Austen’s novels that they have read or reread that month, and they find that their own lives are beginning to reflect the fiction that they are reading. Fowler and Swicord don’t make the mistake – one that other adapters of Austen’s work have certainly made - that Austen is simply a writer of a nineteenth-century version of romantic comedy. Austen’s novels are anything but romantic, nor even really love stories. They are stories about marriage, about making the right match for reasons of financial security and social status (unmarried women were in a very precarious position in Austen’s time) as the dictates of the heart. You don’t have to have read Austen’s novels to enjoy the film – I read three of them during my English degree more than twenty years ago, and I’m long overdue for rereads – but those who have will pick up references that non-fans might miss.

The film offers some fine ensemble acting from a very strong cast and some enjoyable dialogue. Robin Swicord is a long-time scriptwriter making her feature directing debut. She does a competent job, for sure – and due to John Toon’s camerawork this is a good-looking film – though some signs of inexperience do show. Dog reaction shots constitute forcing the material and are a cuteness too far, not once but twice. In style she doesn’t go too far from the parameters of the straightforward Hollywood genre movie, with montages and songs on the soundtrack at appropriate moments. That said, considering how much Hollywood pillages written fiction – to the point where you suspect that many novels are written with one eye on a movie adaptation to the exclusion of styles or techniques that are too “literary” to translate – it’s nice to see a film version of an unashamedly literary novel that doesn’t disgrace its source. The result is an enjoyable hour and a half.



The DVD


Sony’s DVD is encoded for Regions 2 and 5 only. It’s transferred about halfway between 1.78:1 and the original theatrical ratio of 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced. Colours are accurate and blacks solid. The film has a soft-focus, filtered look that is presumably deliberate – an overly-sharp, hard-edged look is hardly going to be appropriate.

The soundtrack is in Dolby Digital 5.1, both the original audio and an audio-descriptive version. This is very much a dialogue-driven film, and surround usage isn’t great apart from the songs, the music score and some ambience. Subtitles are available for the feature and (English and Dutch only) for all the extras as well. In a nice touch, that includes the commentary.

The first extra is an ensemble audio commentary featuring Robin Swicord, Marc Blucas, Hugh Dancy, Maggie Grace, Judy Lynn (producer) and Maryann Brandon (editor). Swicord leads a very chatty commentary, which is otherwise dominated by the three actors, beginning by pointing out how many of the production crew, friends and neighbours can be spotted in the opening-credits montage, right through to Swicord’s on-set photographs that appear in the end credits.

The making-of featurette (18:49) is standard EPK material, consisting of behind-the-scenes footage, cast and crew interviews and film extracts. “Walking the Red Carpet: The Los Angeles Premiere” (2:46) is more of the same, and exactly what it implies.

A couple of featurettes are more substantial. “The Life of Jane Austen” (21:41) is a biography of the author and a discussion of the themes of her works. There’s nothing here that Janeites won’t know already, but it’s a useful guide to beginners. In “The Book Club Deconstructed” (11:44),.Robin Swicord goes into more detail about the characters and their relationships to Austen’s novels, both in Fowler’s novel and, sometimes differently, in the film. In many ways they are contemporary versions of Austen’s characters. Watch this after the film, though.

There are seven deleted scenes, each one introduced by a title card: “Dean Goes Off on Tim Duncan” (1:55), “Allegra’s Kiss” (0:52), “An Editor Rejects Corinne” (0:44), “Allegra’s Revenge” (1:47), “Bernadette and Prudie” (0:41), “Precipitate” (0:47), “How Hard is it to Train a Dog to Sniff a Crotch?” (1:12). The last-named is more of an out-take and has no sound. There is a play-all option.

Finally, there are trailers for Roxy Hunter and the Mystery of the Moody Ghost, Daddy Day Camp, Shredderman Rules!, The Last Day of Summer, My Kid Could Paint That, The Water Horse and Saarwariya. For some reason, the trailer for The Jane Austen Book Club itself is not included.

Film
7 out of 10
Video
9 out of 10
Audio
8 out of 10
Extras
4 out of 10
Overall

8

out of 10

Last updated: 16/06/2018 20:55:37

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